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New Discovery: Giraffes May Be 11 Species

Posted by: Loren Coleman on December 21st, 2007

rare giraffe

The rare Nigerian giraffe, known currently as Giraffa camelopardalis peralta. Photo: Michel Carossio

Last night, for whatever reason, after watching a bit of film showing the megafauna of Africa, I found myself trying to sort out the many subspecies of one animal – the giraffe. No, I wasn’t even looking at the zebras. I ignored the gnus, antelopes, rhinos, and elephants. But, I had to concentrate on the giraffes.

I pulled out two field guides, Jean Dorst’s and Pierre Dandelot’s A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa (1969) and Jonathan Kingdon’s The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (1997). I knew as a young boy I had all the subspecies memorized. But that was a long time ago, and I never made it to Africa, so my self-taught lessons had faded. After studying into the wee hours, it seemed fairly clear that more subspecies had been added and the situation had become more complex.

Not being near a zoo and not having any giraffes out in my backyard, I figured I would see if I could identify, specifically, the giraffes in my replica cryptia and related animal collection. I happen to have a few, five adults and three young. It became clear that one “toy” was not based on any reality other than an animal artist’s imagination, but the others, near museum quality, seemed to represent four different subspecies.

I was struck by how diverse the giraffe subspecies may have become, a long way down the road from okapis.

old giraffes

Directly above, a group of antique Britains giraffe replicas. Can you identify what kind of giraffe is represented?

Thus, it was with some surprise that the first thing I found in the way of new animal news this morning was an announcement about giraffes. The supposed one species of giraffe, which have generally been divided into many subspecies, might actually be 6 to 11 separate species.

In this new view of giraffes, in the midst of this great “new species” discovery news, of course, is bad news too.

One type found in West and Central Africa is on the verge of extinction, the Nigerian giraffe (currently Giraffa camelopardalis peralta), shown in the photograph at top. The Nigerian giraffe is down to only 160 known individuals.

In the December 21, 2007 issue of BMC Biology, scientists have detailed this new genetic study. The research was conducted by an interdisciplinary team from the University of California, Los Angeles, the Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha, Nebraska, and the Mpala Research Center, Kenya.

“Some of these giraffe populations number only a few hundred individuals and need immediate protection,” said study leader David Brown, a geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles and an associate with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Lumping all giraffes into one species obscures the reality that some kinds of giraffe are on the very brink.”

“Giraffes are often overlooked in conservation initiatives, but they are as symbolic of African wilderness as any other species,” said Dr. James Deutsch, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Africa Program. “Studies such as this one will help us inform conservation plans to save the most threatened giraffe populations.”

Besides the extremely rare Nigerian giraffe, the most threatened potential species is the reticulated giraffe (currently Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata), rather familiar to zoogoers. The reticulated giraffe is found in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, reduced from a population estimated at some 27,000 individuals until the 1990s. Poaching and armed conflicts have decreased this group now to 3,000 individuals.

The Rothschild giraffe (currently Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi), which was formerly found in western Kenya and Uganda, can only be located in a few protected areas in Kenya and in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. They are in trouble.

The overall population of giraffes have dropped an estimated 30 percent, in the past decade, to fewer than 100,000 in all of Africa.

On a positive note, the discovery of large antelope herds in Southern Sudan, historically the very center of giraffe evolution, has caused some hope that hidden pockets of giraffe, in good numbers, may also exist there. Because of political difficulties and war, Southern Sudan was off limits to conservationists for twenty years, until recently, when Wildlife Conservation Society efforts documented the species was still there with their count of 400 giraffes.

The following is the abstract from BMC Biology:

Background

A central question in the evolutionary diversification of large, widespread, mobile mammals is how substantial differentiation can arise, particularly in the absence of topographic or habitat barriers to dispersal. All extant giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) are currently considered to represent a single species classified into multiple subspecies. However, geographic variation in traits such as pelage pattern is clearly evident across the range in sub-Saharan Africa and abrupt transition zones between different pelage types are typically not associated with extrinsic barriers to gene flow, suggesting reproductive isolation.

Results

By analyzing mitochondrial DNA sequences and nuclear microsatellite loci, we show that there are at least six genealogically distinct lineages of giraffe in Africa, with little evidence of interbreeding between them. Some of these lineages appear to be maintained in the absence of contemporary barriers to gene flow, possibly by differences in reproductive timing or pelage-based assortative mating, suggesting that populations usually recognized as subspecies may potentially represent different species. Further, five of the six putative lineages also contain genetically discrete populations, yielding at least 11 genetically distinct populations.

Conclusions

Such extreme genetic subdivision within a large vertebrate with high dispersal capabilities is unprecedented and exceeds that of any other large African mammal. Our results have significant implications for giraffe conservation, and imply separate in-situ and ex-situ management, not only of pelage morphs, but also of local populations.“Extensive population genetic structure in the giraffe,” by David M Brown, Rick A Brenneman, Klaus-Peter Koepfli, John P Pollinger, Borja Mila, Nicholas J Georgiadis, Edward E Louis Jr, Gregory F Grether, David K Jacobs and Robert K Wayne, BMC Biology 2007, 5:57doi:10.1186/1741-7007-5-57; published 21 December 2007.

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


8 Responses to “New Discovery: Giraffes May Be 11 Species”

  1. cryptidsrus responds:

    Tragic…

    Thanks for the information, Loren.

  2. Bob Michaels responds:

    I wish they would do an analysis of the African Elephant. I bet there has to be at least 5 subspecies.

  3. Ceroill responds:

    Just goes, once again, to show we don’t know so much as we often think we do.

  4. mystery_man responds:

    Well, being the “splitter” that I am when it comes to taxonomy, this is very interesting news indeed. Ceroill is very correct in that we do not know nearly as much as we think we do (although those of us in fields like biology or zoology sometimes like to act like we do).

    It is really shocking to consider the speed by which some of these species numbers are depleted, and that someday in the not so distant future the giraffe may become another cryptid. The think that makes it really sad is that when that happens or slightly before, we are likely to see great interest in finding living specimens and pouring money into conserving any last vestiges of the species. I prefer a more holistic approach. I say let’s put the time, effort, money, and interest into the species BEFORE it gets to the point where it has nearly vanished or worse yet, flickered out of existence forever.

  5. Ceroill responds:

    Hear, hear, MM! Well said!

  6. MattBille responds:

    I’m no biologist, but my mentor on these subjects. Dr. Cherie McCollough of Texas A&M (we cowrote the bird taxonomy section of Grzimek’s Animal Encyclopedia), agreed with me that there is no widely accepted definition of what degree of difference in DNA, or what specific characteristics of an animal’s genome, can be pointed to as constituting a break between species.

    So, while the paper can be accepted as defining six distinct lineages and 11 distinct populations, it may be premature to call all these species merely because external factors like geography have kept interbreeding down for a long period of time.

    An insular tribe of humans in the Amazon will have a genetic lineage and an external appearance very distinct from an Inuit tribe or, for that matter, an average group of American suburbanites, yet no one suggests these groups are species or even subspecies: they are lineages within the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. These distinct populations not only can interbreed, but, as history tells us, inevitably will do so if they end up living in proximity.

  7. dogu4 responds:

    Why not bring a few breeding populations to the ecologically impoverished southwestern US, along with elephants,camels, cheetahs and a wide range of animals that are now extinct here. It’s been clearly shown that keystone species like giraffes and other big animals actually enhance the carrying capacity of the land by creating ecological niches and altering the landscape itself by creating watering holes and breaks in the otherwise oppressive covering of trees that spring up and reduce diversity when left un-disturbed.
    The illusion of an empty desert in our southwest is largely a distorted one due to our impoverished imaginations and the over-grazing of government subsidized cattle ranching. The american serengeti could be (and should be) more than a catch-phrase to describe yellowstone and its spectacular but relatively undiversified inventory of megafauna..

  8. Tengu responds:

    And they are one of the jolliest, gentlest creatures ever.

    No wonder the Arabs called them the beautiful ones (in opposition to the silly european `Cameleopard`)

    (says she who normaly has no time for the big five)



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